With over $116 million in funding from a list of technological leaders , 21 Inc. has remained a well-funded mystery startup to date. Until this week, the actual business plan of the company has remained a secret. 21 Inc. has just recently revealed plans for an embedded bitcoin mining solution using a chip they call the ‘BitShare’.

The BitShare will operate as an embeddable chip into an internet connected device or “integrated into an existing chipset as a block of IP to generate a continuous stream of digital currency for use in a wide variety of applications”. The firm posits that they are mostly targeting new industrial uses that digital currency enables including:

  • micropayments
  • silicon-as-a-service
  • decentralized device authentication
  • machine twitter
  • Devices that can pay for associated services
  • Devices that can pay your channel partners
  • Bitcoin-subsidized devices for the developing world

Anyone can already purchase a miner, and simply promoting bitcoin mining to the point where every household runs their own miner isn’t a feasible goal. Rather, 21 Inc. seeks to incorporate ASIC mining chips into a variety of internet of things electronics, including frequently used appliances and handheld devices. Although many of the details remain hidden, the potential for a scalable bitcoin-mining chip is formidable. The only question which remains is how scalable is distributed device mining and how cost-effective can 21 Inc. be?

The CEO of 21 Inc., Balaji S. Srinivasan, had this to say about the technical application of embedded bitcoin mining:

Conceptually, we believe that embedded mining will ultimately establish bitcoin as a fundamental system resource on par with CPU, bandwidth, hard drive space, and RAM. That is, one can imagine the ultimate thin client in which a system designer consciously chooses a relatively slow CPU but a relatively strong 21 mining chip, using the bitcoin generated therein to purchase computation in the cloud.

Larry Summers

The inclusion of Mr. Summers at 21 marks him as the highest ranking former government official to provide services to a digital-currency startup.

21 Inc. already boasts an impressive team who claim to have already built a “full technology stack around the chip — including reference devices, datasheets, a cloud backend, and software protocols. And we have already engaged with a wide variety of early access partners across the industry, from small startups to multibillion dollar hardware companies.”

The investment team among 21 Inc. already includes many notables, featuring both Cisco and former ARM CSO Mark Templeton as investors. In addition, Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz has joined the board, and Larry Summers will become a strategic advisor to the company.

It is not yet clear how 21 Inc. plans to recycle outdated mining chips. At the very best for the consumer, the company will offer its clients with the opportunity to switch out their products every couple of years for the most recent mining gear in a similar manner to how many smartphone carriers offer ‘upgrade plans’ with their contracts.

Given how quickly the bitcoin industry evolves technically, it is unclear how relevant embedded mining could be in smartphones and other light-weight devices. It would seem the only way 21 Inc. could compete on a cost-basis is by utilizing ASIC chipsets, and therefore, specialized devices, not generic devices, would be a necessity.

Similar systems of “embedded mining” have been popular in the past. BitTorrent recently included a bitcoin miner hidden under version update notes in a software patch. This move was met largely with criticism as it was not widely known that updates would install a bitcoin mining device.

It is clear 21 Inc. is focused on an internet of things future where bitcoin is an essential resource much the same as CPU or memory storage. From their vision, the company sees a “bitcoin miner in every device and in every hand.”

Author

Travis Patron

Travis Patron is the author of The Bitcoin Revolution: An Internet of Money, a seminal publication in the digital money space which outlines the basics of the bitcoin payment system. As a public speaking authority, he regularly speaks to audiences on the economics & industry trends of bitcoin.

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  • Reply

    Che Gravos

    18 05 2015

    I’m a bit unclear as to how bitcoin that operates on this type of embedded device would be more valuable that normal. In his blog post, Srinivasan writes:

    “Crucial to this is the idea that bitcoin generated by embedded mining is more convenient — and hence more valuable — than bitcoin bought at market price and manually moved over to the site of utility. As evidence for this, when a user writes a byte to their local hard drive, the spot price of external storage is not typically top-of-mind relative to the convenience of simply having a local hard drive. A more technical example is the L2 cache; it’s not just the price-per-byte of the cache that matters, but its speed and availability. We believe a similar calculus will obtain for the convenience of having a local source of constantly replenished bitcoin from a 21 BitShare, a kind of “/dev/bitcoin” for use in routine micropayments and device authentication applications.”

    In terms of fungibility, it would seem that there is no discrepancy between the different types of bitcoin funds. Or am I missing something here?

  • Reply

    Travis Patron

    18 05 2015

    A machine capable of gaining economic standing unto itself.

  • Reply

    Alex Norta

    19 05 2015

    Besides novel micro-payment models, I believe this will also solve a lot of security issues that the Internet still has. Certainly cyberphysical ecosystems are extremely vulnerable against attacks. With the cryptographic properties of blockchains, we can severely enhance the security situation. :)

    • Reply

      Travis Patron

      19 05 2015

      Although the device authentication and satoshi micro-payments would have a very high level of scalability, I am unclear as to how bitcoin mining can be put into “every device and in every hand.”

      Bitcoin mining is a very specialized operation and will only get more specialized. To put an ASIC chipset into a smartphone and have it compete on a cost-basis is a very difficult thing to do.

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